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(Information provided by Janine Donnellan)
In Hawaiian mythology, an aumakua is a family god, often a deified ancestor. 'Aumakua were often ancestors whose bones had been specially stripped of flesh upon death, wrapped in kapa and ceremonially prepared before the bones were placed in the custody of another descendant. The word aumakua - literally means I (in the first person), am an era, a channel or conduit in the current or flow of time, carried on the backbone of those before me who have taken spirit/akua form, and whom I grow to appear as!
To the ancient Hawaiians, an aumakua was a protective, ancestral guardian spirit, in the form of an animal. "Watching over their descendants, 'aumakua would often embody the form of an animal. Common forms are sharks, owls, dolphins, eels, and turtles."
When an individual died, it was thought the spirit of that person jumped from a rocky precipice, a leina or soul's leap, designated on each island, to begin its journey to the ancestral homeland. In a shadowy place called Po, the ancestor spirits lived with the supreme gods and were transfigured into god-spirits, whose mana, or power, was almost as awesome as that of the akua.
The spirit of a deceased ancestor first might serve as an 'unihipili, a deity who granted requests for mercy and gave warnings of pending disasters or destruction. The earthly individual who safeguarded the bones of the 'unihipili could summon him for guidance. If the 'unihipili was especially deserving, he became an 'aumakua, an ancestral god honored by his descendants and easily approachable in times of need.